The Return of False Balance on Climate Change

Until recently, media outlets, when running stories about global warming, often felt compelled to also include, often in the same article, scientifically groundless views denying the reality of human-caused climate change. Newspapers and other publications supposedly acknowledged these views in the name of journalistic balance. However, airing such denialism made as much sense as publishing the rants of 9/11 Truthers and the Anti-vaxxers. Researchers Max and Jules Boykoff found that such so-called balance actually violated another journalistic value, objectivity, as publicizing groundless climate denialism presented a distorted picture of the state of climate science. Media balance obscured the fact that there has been a decades-long consensus that human beings are heating the planet. In the case of climate change, balance effectively became bias. This biased balance has receded, as the media now generally reports the reality of climate change without including unscientific rebuttal.

However, it seems that so-called balance on climate change has once again reared its ugly head. Earlier this week, a number of newspapers around the nation published a piece on climate change by James Taylor. Taylor is President of the Heartland Institute, a notorious source of climate denialism. One newspaper labeled the piece as “counterpoint,” as if to offer the other side of a lively debate. Another used the term “forum.” Yet the piece is so riddled with inaccuracies and falsehoods as to not merit publication in any newspaper. It does not offer a legitimate counterpoint in any forum. More importantly, this piece is a case study in how attempts at media balance on climate change only distort the reality of climate science and hamper efforts to address the climate emergency.

First of all, Taylor utterly misrepresents the climate crisis when he says that climate change will replace a cold climate with a more desirable warm one. In fact, global warming ending the 10,000 years of climatic stability — an epoch scientists call the Holocene — that enabled human civilization to arise and flourish. Global warming is not a matter of turning a switch from colder to warmer conditions. Rather, climate change means decades and decades of climatic instability coupled with massively destructive weather extremes and rising sea levels. These changes will seriously endanger the built environment, essential infrastructure, food and water supplies, public health, and political stability and national security. Taylor would have us think that climate change means pleasant, mild conditions. Instead, think of the relentless tropical storms and devastating wildfires that we are now experiencing. Think of millions of refugees displaced by rising sea levels and extreme weather events. Think of food shortages brought on by droughts.

Second, Taylor engages in blatant falsehood about the evidence for climate change. The evidence, which is consistent with basic geophysics and atmospheric chemistry, goes way beyond the past century’s temperature records. It includes observations of change in sea levels, glaciers, weather, ecosystems, and seasonal patterns. It also includes paleoclimatic data and the fossil record, which enable us to reconstruct planetary conditions going back hundreds of millions of years and show that past increases in carbon dioxide and methane have heated our planet.

Third, Taylor misrepresents the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He claims, “Even the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledges it has low confidence that any of the forecast harms of a warming planet are occurring today.” In fact, in its 2012 report, the IPCC says, “It is likely that anthropogenic influences have led to warming of extreme daily minimum and maximum temperatures at the global scale. There is medium confidence that anthropogenic influences have contributed to intensification of extreme precipitation at the global scale. It is likely that there has been an anthropogenic influence on increasing extreme coastal high water due to an increase in mean sea level.”

Taylor asserts that “temperatures have been significantly warmer than today throughout most of the time that human civilization has existed.” That is entirely false. In fact, the Earth may be warmer than it has been in 120,000 years. Taylor also claims that “the planet [is] return[ing] to its customary warmth.” Such a statement is scientifically nonsensical and is a rhetorical device meant to assure readers that climate change means restoration of some preexisting equilibrium. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Finally, Taylor cites wind turbines as a major cause of bird death. In fact, while bird deaths from wind turbines are a problem, they are dwarfed, by orders of magnitude, by bird mortality from cats, collisions with buildings, and vehicles. Arguably, climate change will be much more destructive of wildlife than wind or solar installations.

Taylor’s screed is no doubt the first of many denialist broadsides that will pop up in the news media over the coming year. Why? President-elect Joe Biden is vowing serious action to address the climate emergency. And every time we are on the verge of confronting climate change, the denialist community of right-wing ideologues and fossil fuel interests ramps up its sabotage efforts. There is an unfortunate pattern here. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the initially promising 2009 United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen, 2010 federal climate legislation, the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, and President Obama’s Clean Power Plan were all derailed in part by denialist disinformation and political campaigns.

Such efforts are not only manipulative, misleading, and untruthful; they are also deeply immoral. Driven by anti-regulatory zeal and economic self-interest, climate denialism attacks our ability to deal with an existential threat to civilization. A 2009 Stanford University study found that media balancing of mainstream climate science with denialism reduced public belief in the reality and seriousness of climate change and reduced support for public policy to address the issue. In publishing baseless denialist pieces, news outlets thus do more than abandon objectivity. They themselves become complicit in perpetuating the climate crisis.

Professor of Government at Hamilton College